England’s Beirut-Style Explosion Waiting to Happen

(Courtesy of the USA)

(US Navy photo)

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Something like what happened in Beirut on Tuesday could hit England at any moment thanks to a deathtrap the United States left at the mouth of the River Thames in 1944. If America’s hazardous mess—a mostly-sunken WWII navy ship—ever explodes, the resulting blast might be comparable in size to Beirut’s tragic explosion, though thankfully, this one probably won’t hit quite as many buildings and people.

The locals in Sheerness, the town in Kent, England, closest to the wreckage, are aware there’s a problem, and have decorated accordingly. In 2015, a local artist named Dean Tweedy painted a mural in its honor featuring a surly mermaid on the beach, ready to detonate a plunger whose fuse leads to the visible wreckage offshore. The whole thing is a bit Jaws.

(Mural photo by Robert Eva)

But more than just being a potentially devastating explosion, the story of this ship, the S.S. Richard Montgomery, is remarkably similar in some of its specifics to the Beirut disaster, particularly all the stupidity that led up to it.

To recap: what happened Tuesday is that something very big exploded at Beirut’s port, and in addition to being deadly, the explosion completely destroyed a bunch of buildings including an important grain elevator. Measured as an earthquake, the blast registered as a 3.3 on the richter scale. Measured in human lives, at least 157 people have died so far. If you need to use nukes as your reference point, the explosion measured about 2 percent of one “Little Boy,” a.k.a. the nuke the US dropped on Hiroshima almost exactly 75 years ago. 

But more to the point, this event simply took a horrifically big bite out of Beirut. The most devastating measurements to use are probably the number of people left injured or homeless—5,000 and 300,000 respectively. Lebanon was also in the middle of COVID and the accompanying Great COVID Depression—that is: the same two crises as every other country in the world, except that Lebanon’s financial crisis was already probably the worst in the world before any of this happened. Now, since much of Lebanon’s live-giving grain was just blown up, as was the port they used to take in new shipments of grain, they may have a food crisis on their hands as well. 

I watched all of the expected scapegoating and conspiracy theories emerge in real time. The explosion was thought to be a possible nuclear attack by a foreign power—and to be fair Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel, a nuclear power—or it could have been some kind of accidental detonation of a Hezbollah weapons cache. With news like this, I make it a personal and professional policy not to buy into conspiracies when there’s not substantial evidence pointing that way, but also not to completely rule out the idea that someone is successfully covering up cartoonish supervillainy. But having said that, from all appearances so far, it appears the culprit truly was a comedy of errors, exacerbated by incompetence, laziness, and greed.

That is to say, as you’ve probably heard, the source of the explosion was probably just the 3,000-ish tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer locked in that Beirut warehouse, which were ignited by an unrelated fire, and blew up.

As scary as terrorism and war may be, I find disasters like this one scarier in some ways, because they are just things out there in the world that can happen. In 2013, a train disaster in Canada killed 49 people, and it turned out to be the result of a bunch of little things that didn’t seem like a big deal until one day they were. The conductor was given a light community service sentence for not following certain safety procedures to the letter, but an investigation ultimately found that the accident was “not caused by one single person, action or organization.” Beirut’s ammonium nitrate disaster looks like another one of these no-bad-guy-just-a-lot-of-idiots deals.

And, OK, the whole thing is quite a bit fishier than the Canadian train disaster, but as a person who has a hard time with details, I’m glad I’m not the one whose job it is to dole out moral demerits for this extremely weird story:

The M.V. Rhosus is a janky 284-foot Japanese-built cargo ship, most recently flying the Moldovan flag, leased to a motorcycle-loving Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, who, until this past week showed very little interest in the fate of the cargo ship he was theoretically responsible for. In 2013 the Rhosus was already barely seaworthy: rusty, taking on water, and generally had no business being loaded full of explosives. But nonetheless, the ship, captained by a guy named Boris Prokoshev left Europe’s Georgia in 2013, ostensibly to deliver the fateful shipment of explosive fertilizer to a buyer in Mozambique.

As far as I can tell, the route it would have taken was fascinating, and would have relied heavily on narrow canals, straits, and gulfs.

(map by me)

But only the red part, the little loop around Turkey, ever happened. It stopped for a while in Athens for some reason, and then carried on through the Mediterranean making its way toward the Suez Canal through Egypt, before, according to a 2015 report by Lebanese lawyers, some unknown “technical problems” forced the Rhosus to dock in Beirut and receive an inspection from the local port authorities, who declared it unfit for sailing and sent six out of ten of the crew members home.

But that account is missing a ton of detail. According to Captain Prokoshev, via the BBC, it seems some sort of grift was afoot:

[T]he Rhosus only stopped off in Beirut because its owner [again, the motorcycle-loving Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin who was just leasing it] had money trouble. The captain said he was told the ship needed to collect an additional cargo of heavy machinery, to fund passage through the Suez Canal.

However, the machinery proved too heavy to load, and when the ship's owner did not pay the port fees and fine, the Lebanese authorities impounded it, along with the ammonium nitrate, he added.

And at that point, Grechushkin said he was bankrupt, and just sorta went silent, which probably annoyed Beirut’s port officers quite a bit given that they’d spent a lot of money and effort trying to get the Rhosus safely back out of their port.

What do you do when there’s an abandoned sinking ship containing 3,000 tons of explosive fertilizer and four people—Captain Prokoshev and three Ukranian crew members—docked at your port? There are no easy answers, but if I were the Lebanese port authority (and again, I regularly thank God I am not), I would like to think I might A) repatriate the rest of the crew, and B) scuttle the trashed ship a safe distance from my port, but not before C) unloading the hazardous cargo, and carting it off as far as possible from Beirut as is practical, perhaps storing it in one of the abandoned areas near Marajayoun in Southern Lebanon. Those ideas come with their own problems, and they’re far from great solutions, but I only bring them up to contrast them with what happened instead:

The remaining four abandoned crew members were essentially imprisoned on this abandoned sinking ship with the abandoned explosive fertilizer indefinitely, and given food and water by a port worker who took pity on them. Captain Prokoshev would write letters to diplomats attempting to get someone to bail him and his three Ukrainian crewmen out of their horrible predicament, but to no avail. Someone at Lebanon’s Russian Embassy wrote back “Do you expect President Putin to send special forces to get you out?” And this went on for months until, in 2014, a Lebanese judge gave them a compassionate release, and, somehow, motorcycle-loving Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin paid to transport them home. Maybe he was relieved that no one was asking him to dispose of his dangerous stockpile of explosive fertilizer, and was happy to spend a few thousand dollars on plane tickets to put the matter to bed forever. Perhaps he dusted off his hands, feeling like a very responsible and generous person.

Lebanese authorities knew all that ammonium nitrate was just sitting on an abandoned sinking ship with no one on board to pump out the water that was causing it to sink, so they solved the problem by unloading the explosive fertilizer into a nearby storage building called Hangar 12.

The port’s general manager was a guy named Hassan Koraytem, and for the record, as far as I can tell he’s one of the port workers currently in jail, awaiting some sort of charges for his role in causing the explosion. But back in 2014, according to The New York Times, officials made “repeated requests” to have the ammonium nitrate moved to safety. Koraytem told the Times, “We were told the cargo would be sold in an auction […] But the auction never happened and the judiciary never acted.” From the Times article, it sounds a bit like whoever held a legal claim to the ammonium nitrate at that point was treating it like less of a hazard than a potential source of revenue—maybe it can be sold to a farm, or a mining company, or the military, etc… And given the state of the Lebanese bureaucracy at the time, the extra funds were probably desperately needed.

So it just sat there for about six years. Then on Tuesday there was a huge fire at the port (so far I haven’t found much about how the first fire started, so if I were a conspiracy theorist I would definitely latch onto this part of the story), which spread to a bunch of fireworks, and then hit the fertilizer stockpile and the result, at about 2.75 kilotons was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all time.

Which brings me back to the S.S. Richard Montgomery, where the unexploded disaster waiting off the coast of England is a bit smaller in terms of its tonnage—about 1.5 thousand tons—but still pretty scary.

Could this story be as idiotic as the story of the M.V. Rhosus? Sadly, yes: in 1944, The Richard Montgomery made the long trip across the Atlantic from the US, and then was loaded with explosives, and scheduled to wait in the relatively shallow waters of the Thames estuary to join a convoy later bound for Cherbourg in France. According to a fascinatingly detailed local interest blog called “Southend Timeline,” the order to wait in the estuary was “the death knell” for the Montgomery. One night the ship drifted onto a sandbank as other ships watched in horror and tried to signal a warning, but apparently (warning: this comes from Wikipedia) Captain Wilkie of the Richard Montgomery was asleep, and the ship wrecked hopelessly and started sinking.

Over the next several weeks, crews tried to unload mass quantities of explosives off the ship before it could all sink down to the sand bank, but they didn’t get all of it. About 1.5 thousand tons stayed. The ship later broke in half, exposing the cargo to ocean currents, meaning bombs periodically drift away to god-knows-where, but it’s thought that most of the explosive cargo is still in the wreckage. An exclusion zone has existed there for the past 76 years. And obviously, that attracts all kinds of thrill-seekers and weirdos who swim up to it, and have occasionally been dinged by the authorities for peeking at it. In 1980, a tanker captain was fined £200,000 for sailing within the exclusion zone with a shipment of flammable liquids, Lol.

A 2004 story in New Scientist called “The doomsday wreck” found that the Montgomery was at the time still vulnerable to “a collision with another vessel, a terrorist or even the small shock of a bomb moving in the tide,” and that “far from being stable, the condition of the bombs means they could even explode spontaneously.”

If it all went off at once, that’s theoretically a 1.5 kiloton explosion, which seems unlikely, but too scary to disregard. Out of curiosity, I used Alex Wellerstein’s Missile Map, one of my favorite websites, to create a map view of a 1.5 kiloton weapon detonation at the approximate location of the wreckage of the S.S. Richard Montgomery, and it doesn’t seem like a blast would directly blow up anything on land, though I wish to emphasize, if you’re a resident of Sheerness, that this is just one quick-and-dirty method of calculating the size of this explosion, and not an expert analysis of the likely damage.

In any case, that tells me nothing about likely damage to boats and ships and coastal infrastructure if the Montgomery ever blows up. I can’t really speak to the size or deadliness of the ensuing waves. And last but not least, I pity the poor exploded fish.

Anyway, someone should really do something about all those rusty underwater bombs. Just one guy’s opinion!

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What Would a Good Climate Plan Look Like?

Not Joe Biden's

(Joe Biden photo by Gage Skidmore)

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Joe Biden’s climate plan is the best a major party nominee for president has ever had, but that’s not saying much. At the moment however, powerful people who know a lot about climate change are being very kind to Biden. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, formerly the presidential candidate whose entire stump speech was dominated by climate change, has expressed only uncomplicated optimism about Biden’s plan. When David Wallace-Wells asked Inslee to criticize it, he said, “I’m going to defer, I’m going to let that one pass because I’m just so focused on the immediate future—winning this election and implementing these policies.”

Serious, action-minded people can find things to praise about what the Biden campaign is offering if he manages to get elected. According to Bill McKibben the plan is “a truly useful compendium of the mainstream and obvious ideas for an energy and conservation transition,” though he adds, “The crucial job of activists, then, is to always be demanding that we move faster.”

And the climate change documents on the Biden website contain stern words for fossil fuel companies, promises to spend a lot of money, and praiseworthy rhetoric, like this:

We cannot turn a blind eye to the way in which environmental burdens and benefits have been and will continue to be distributed unevenly along racial and socioeconomic lines—not just with respect to climate change, but also pollution of our air, water, and land. The evidence of these disproportionate harms is clear.

But I worry that this isn’t a serious commitment to correcting for the ways in which white supremacy burdens people of color with a disproportional amount of suffering caused by climate change, and it is instead just a bunch of liberal niceties. Liberal niceties are helpful in a way, I suppose. Maybe today’s presidential candidate rhetoric will become tomorrow’s sanctimonious Toyota commercial, and maybe we should all be thrilled about that, but forgive me if I am not. The specific racial justice actions outlined in the plan mostly involve reinstating policies to protect marginalized communities, which have been rolled back by president Trump, and promises to ensure universal access to clean water (which will become more challenging when the temperature increases and causes droughts, though I’m pretty sure he’s just talking about removing pollutants). I’m glad this is on Biden’s website. It’s not nothing.

And yet, powerful, intersectional statements about environmental justice notwithstanding, an inadequate climate plan is inadequate, and the consequences of an inadequate plan are horrendous. Personally, I’m not giving out As for effort anymore, or patting politicians on the head for “listening to the scientists” if they don’t then do what scientists are telling them to do. The stakes are too high, and we’ve been at this for too long. We should call good plans good, and inadequate plans bad.

I’m not being unreasonable, I hope. I’m actually being pragmatic, I think. Below is a fun YouTube video about some of the basics of climate change from a guy who calls himself ClimateAdam, and it makes two points I want to stay on throughout this essay: 1) It’s too late to prevent climate change, and 2) Nonetheless, climate change is a worsening emergency that needs to be stopped. That in mind, I’m going to use Adam’s video as a kind of litmus test for climate plans.

I find analogies helpful, and I’m going to dissect the ones Adam uses. He says we often mistakenly talk about climate change like it’s a bomb that needs to be defused before it goes off, opening a pandora’s box of infinite ecological evil. Climate change isn’t a problem that can be defused, because the damage has already begun, and is worsening. And using one big explosion as a model for the consequences of inaction is even more misleading. Earth most likely won’t turn into an uninhabitable Venus-like wasteland, and as much as we like to use “or else we’re all doomed” framings, there’s not much science pointing to human extinction as a likely consequence of climate change, no matter how bad it gets, although wars, famines, droughts, and mass extinctions of other species are in the offing—a human death toll in the billions, maybe?—so worst case scenarios are nothing to soft-pedal.

The analogy Adam offers as an antidote is that climate change is like a mugger repeatedly punching a hapless bystander. People of ostensibly good conscience are a second, even more hapless bystander watching this all unfold, and, bizarrely, doing basically nothing. They plot an end to the punching at first by creating arbitrary deadlines after which the punching must stop, but then they miss the deadlines, and basically give up, and just lament how bad the punching has gotten, all the while wishing out loud that they’d taken action before it was too late. And meanwhile the cartoonish punching just carries on. Bap! Bap! Bap! Bap!…

Ah, but real punching—like real climate change—is less fun. You can take a soft bop to the nose without much permanent damage. If the hands punching you are gloved, you can actually take hundreds of grazing shots to the face in one fight, but they add up. In 1966, Muhammad Ali only needed five rounds to turn Henry Cooper into a famously ugly mess that splashed the press with so much blood that the ref ended the fight. In 2019, after 12 rounds without a knockout Badou Jack looked so swollen and cut up and, well, ghoulish that people were pretty sure his career was over, and that’s probably why fights don’t go on longer than 12 rounds (speaking of arbitrary thresholds). Boxers can, of course, die in the ring, or shortly after a fight, like Patrick Day did last year. And, like football players, boxers can probably experience CTE from repeated concussions, so doctors are trying to figure out if that explains why they sometimes become suicidal. Basically, one punch is bad, and a billion punches obliterates your head. At some point in the middle the injuries are irreversible, and eventually the person dies, but no doctor can tell you how many punches it takes to get there; just that the only safe thing to do is not get punched.

The climate change assault, if you will, is not a boxing match. Scientists can’t really point to one absolute life-or-death, end-all-be-all ratio of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere, so it’s hard to state with authority exactly when we have to stop other than “ASAP.” So there’s no climate change referee here, and the climate change mugger has been punching his victim for a really, really long time. The only good news is that a big crowd of people has formed, all screaming at the mugger to stop. But the bad news is that the mugger is punching more ferociously than ever, and—most perversely of all—a second crowd has showed up, and they’re not screaming stop, but braying for more blood.

For a climate plan to be good, it would have to be a plan that at least tries to get the punching guy to stop punching. Before we evaluate the Biden plan on those terms, here are some bullet points to keep in mind about humanity’s awareness of climate change, and our progress toward stopping it.

  • It’s been 38 years since Exxon’s in-house researchers linked fossil fuel pollution to global warming, and then suppressed those findings. They then lied to the public for years about climate change.

  • It’s been 32 years since Bill McKibben first synthesized the science literature on greenhouse gases and atmospheric warming into a digestible, prime time-ready article for the New York Review of Books called “Is The Earth Getting Hotter?” We can safely say the whole world has known about the problem ever since.

  • It’s been 26 years since the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force, committing all signatories to keep greenhouse gas emissions “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” We didn’t do that.

(Wikipedia emissions graph by Tomastvivlaren)
  • Instead of declining since then, emissions have mostly risen, or, in the best years, leveled off. Global emissions need to A) stop increasing year-by-year globally, an outcome which would simply cause emissions to plateau, as they mostly have in the US. Then we need emissions to B) steadily decrease, which can ostensibly happen if we create energy sources that don’t pollute and then—crucially—we don’t also build new polluting energy sources, making all that green energy effectively pointless. C) we have to get to a point where essentially all of our energy needs are met by non-polluting sources. You know how it’s sort of a relief when you see a COVID case number graph trending downward? But then you remember that it can’t just trend downward? And that it needs to actually plunge all the way down to zero before the problem goes away? Climate change graphs are kinda like that. A downward-trending emissions graph doesn’t show the climate getting better, it shows the cause of the problem getting worse more slowly. Emissions have to drop down to approximately zero, and only then can we even hope that climate change might get better.

  • Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report basically saying that humanity was most likely going to miss the window to limit temperature increase to an already very undesirable 1.5 degrees celsius, and that we were headed toward something worse. That report, combined with a very scary article from Wallace-Wells that had come out some months earlier, finally got climate change into the “mainstream discourse,” whatever that is.

  • According to that report, as of January 1, 2018 the world could emit 420 gigatons of CO2, and still have a 66 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees. Given that we emit about 42 gigatons per year, you can do your own back-of-the envelope math on this, but here’s mine: we’re at about 300 gigatons left currently, and we’re not on track to steadily decrease emissions year-over-year, therefore we have about seven years before we’ve emitted so much CO2 we’ve definitely blown our shot at 1.5 degrees. CarbonBrief put the number at eight years when they made the following graphic last year:

So are the plans outlined at Joebiden dot com slash clean dash energy, and Joebiden dot com slash climate up to this monumental task? Emphatically no, and it won’t take me much time at all to explain why in the broadest sense: We have about seven years before the global carbon budget is expended, and the Biden plan will “put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050,” which is 7+23 years. In the plan’s defense, we’re supposed to get a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035,” which is only 7+8 years, but electricity generation only accounts for 27 percent of our total emissions according to the EPA. The plan, in short, completely disregards the 1.5 degree goal.

And to choose a path toward more warming is unforgivable. 1.5 degrees of warming compromises Earth’s future enough—the results would be catastrophic. To subject our world to even another half a degree on top of that exposes us and our descendants to unspeakable horror. ClimateBrief helpfully compared the two outcomes according to the best mathematical models available, and the results are infuriating. Some highlights:

  • Access to freshwater in the areas they studied would decrease by 17 percent, as opposed to 9 percent in the 1.5 degree scenario.

  • Wheat production would decline by 16 percent instead of 9 percent.

  • Sea level rise by 2100 would be 50 centimeters higher than the baseline level instead of 40 centimeters.

But there’s more to dislike about this plan than the timeline. Getting back to that punch-in-the-face analogy: another thing that makes Joe Biden’s plan so inadequate—and honestly the same goes for most comparable plans—is that it simply fails to scream “stop” at the guy punching the other guy in the face. Instead, it promises to coax the guy into stopping, very slowly, basically by distracting him with other things to do, many of which haven’t been invented yet.

Moreover, the plan on Biden’s website isn’t serious because it relies on fantasies. The Biden campaign promises to “Accelerate the development and deployment of carbon capture sequestration technology,” for instance, which is climate fairy dust. The idea of sucking carbon out of the air and storing it in big tanks is cool and everything—I always picture it as a contraption from a Dr. Seuss illustration—and we should definitely try to make it work, but as a technology that actually helps Earth on the scale we need it to, it’s simply not real yet, and it may never be. It’ll be great if it happens, but it’s a low probability side-bet. It shouldn’t be a feature in any climate plan any more than “find a wish-granting toad” should be.

And here’s the Biden bullet point on “Innovation”:

Drive dramatic cost reductions in critical clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative emissions technologies, the next generation of building materials, renewable hydrogen, and advanced nuclear—and rapidly commercialize them, ensuring that those new technologies are made in America.

To “drive dramatic cost reductions” as an agenda for a federal government means to subsidize those industries and/or give them tax breaks. And if one drives down the cost of one product, the other product will take its ball and go home, one assumes, right? Lol, no, it will be a knock-down-drag-out fight against some of the world’s richest and most noxious bastards, as we all know.

The Biden Plan touts Obama-era regulatory achievements, and implies that it will bring enforcement back, and says by the end of Biden’s first time “an enforcement mechanism” will exist—what that mechanism will be is anyone’s guess. But rather than call directly for a halt of fossil fuel emissions via powerful new regulations, the meat of this plan involves funneling money and resources into products that compete with fossil fuel. These are actions that companies and political adversaries will—and already do—attempt to overpower by activating conservative people’s well-established resentment toward environmentalism.

For example, if someone driving a diesel truck feels slighted by someone they perceive to be on the left—be they an electric car driver, or simply a Black Lives Matter protester—they might do this cutesy thing called Rolling Coal where they make big clouds of black smoke come out of their exhaust in order to feel better. Environmentalism is a culture war issue, and Fox News is already treating Biden’s plan as such. Instead of capitulating to the realities of the market, we can expect environmental resentment to be weaponized and further racialized.

Ever since 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain blurted out “Drill offshore and drill now,” and discovered that Republican rally crowds are full of weird people who will start hooting and give you a standing ovation if you declare your undying loyalty to oil companies, we’ve been in an era when right-wing politicians signal their antagonism toward climate change activism in order to drum up support.

This support is not an acknowledgement of innate economic realities—it’s a culture war signifier, which means it flies in the face of good sense. In 2018 Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis said during his campaign, “I’m not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists” as a not-so-subtle way of telling fossil fuel companies they should support him—even though his state is one of climate change’s most vulnerable victims. Trump’s energy policies go out of their way to reward red states financially for their reliance on fossil fuels.

In an era where everything gets turned into a culture war issue, politics should probably be treated as a competition for power, and that’s something Republicans appear to understand intuitively, while Democrats, it appears, do not. I would even argue that progressive icons like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aren’t exceptional power politicians. They’re usually just the only ones who even appear to be fighting at all on any given day. Meanwhile, members of Democratic leadership like Steny Hoyer have a tendency to soften their own demands before the Republicans even arrive at the negotiating table, a process you can watch in real time right now as the Democrats give away people’s COVID unemployment benefits.

So it surprised me to see activist and progressive think-tanker Julian Brave NoiseCat write in The Guardian that Biden’s plan is “in the broadest strokes, the climate policy gospel according to many progressives.” I respectfully disagree with Julian Brave NoiseCat.

In comparison to the Sanders Green New Deal (RIP), what’s missing is any sense that we’re telling the punching guy to stop punching. The Sanders plan emphasized things like, “Making the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution, through litigation, fees, and taxes, and eliminating federal fossil fuel subsidies.” In fairness, the Biden plan ends fossil fuel subsidies too, but that’s not like telling the puncher to stop, that’s like taking away the brass knuckles we gave him. Sanders also emphasized something very important that Biden, for the most part, doesn’t: regulation. The Sanders plan promised to “Regulate all dangerous greenhouse gases.”

Here’s an excerpt from the Sanders plan that I particularly liked:

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will jointly develop an economy-wide survey of climate risks. To create this report, the SEC will require corporations to audit and report their climate risks. The EPA will use the information to target the worst climate risks through economy-wide regulations to limit carbon pollution emissions under the Clean Air Act to achieve our carbon pollution reduction goals.

And even this is just a baby step toward telling the punching guy to stop punching. By quantifying emissions from corporations, we can say that this hypothetical Sanders EPA would have learned something valuable. But once that Sanders EPA started regulating based on that information, the federal government would be asking for a million court battles—and if those battles had made it to our right-wing Supreme Court, success would have been far from guaranteed. For instance, back in 2014, the court was further to the left, and the EPA’s proposed climate enforcement under President Obama was pretty modest, but the Supreme Court still watered it down. It will be worse next time. If Biden’s “enforcement mechanism” is a whole new regulatory agency (and I hope it is!) I worry that such an agency won’t survive a showdown with the judiciary at all.

I’m not saying this just to be a downer. It’s just that the Biden climate plan would have to be more ambitious than the Sanders one to even have a shot at telling the punching guy to stop punching. We all know Democrat plans get severely watered down, and that as McKibben wrote in his article about Biden’s plan, “few of the proposals will get enacted in their precise form.” So maybe the problem is just that this is a plan created by Democrats, and they are a party that is unfortunately not capable of coming up with an effective plan.

Now, I’m not going to say this next part is simple (it’s usually a very bad sign if the essay you’re reading says “actually climate change is simple” at any point), but what needs to be accomplished one way or another if a plan is going to be effective is that greenhouse gas emissions have to stop, much like the guy needs to stop punching the other guy. He doesn’t need to slow down, or transition to a less damaging type of attack. He has to stop. Conservative fear-mongering about The Future Liberals Want is based in a fairly accurate, if simplified, snapshot of the solution to the problem: Things like coal and natural gas power plants need to stop running—right now if possible. Oil has to stop being extracted and turned into gasoline. Giant, diesel-powered container ships have to stop. Planes have to not take off. Etc, etc… That’s how climate change gets fixed.

The absence of these things will trigger a sharp sudden demand for substitutes. New infrastructure jobs have to go to marginalized people, and benefit marginalized communities. There are tons of potential downsides, like potential energy shortages, potentially violent pushback from right-wing people. And getting the timelines right so that millions of people aren’t plunged into poverty is a non-negotiable prerequisite to a good plan that is also effective.

But dirty energy has to go, so the elusive Good Climate Plan would be one that threads that needle. And this has to start now-ish. Here in the US and other rich countries, we have a head start on building renewable sources of energy. In order to soften the blow, we’re obligated to throw what I call The Off-Switch sooner than countries that aren’t as far along in their development. But before long, everyone has to shut it all down.

And that’s it. That’s the point at which the punching guy stops punching. Much like everyone staying home all of a sudden this March, it is not what the gatekeepers of our economy want to see happen, but it is simply what has to happen. If you picture greenhouse gas emissions as a pollution leak—and that is indeed what they are—we need to shut the leak off.

In 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the craziest thing to watch was the live video feed of the gushing leak on the seafloor, taken by a camera that had been attached to the bottom of the ill-fated rig. There was the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, live on TV. “Jesus christ someone just fucking stop it!” you would hear yourself involuntarily blurt out as you watched it. But it just kept going like that for five months before they managed to cap it.

No such emotionally charged live footage exists for climate change, but it might soon. A coalition calling itself Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-Time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions) will, according to a recent Vox article by David Roberts, roll out a method for tracking all the greenhouse gas emissions in the world in real time. Being excited about this feels a little like getting excited about some new “invention” from Elon Musk, but I can’t help it. The ability to bring up real-time data that exposes climate profligacy and outright villainy in real-time sounds to me like a breakthrough technology. Armed with that kind of information, my hope is that activists can easily reveal the outrageous disparity between individual footprints and institutional footprints, and that will in turn both stimulate activist anger, and show us exactly where to direct it.

The other reason I’m so excited about something as dorky as Climate TRACE is that in the event that a climate plan worthy of actual optimism moves forward, I suspect we’ll need day-to-day information about our progress in order to stay engaged. It would have to be a little like the graphs of daily new COVID cases, but with more visceral power. Somewhere to check every day when you log on, to get a snapshot of whether emissions are getting better or worse today.

Because my sense is that if you look out the window while a Good Climate Plan is moving forward, things won’t look “normal,” and the stock market might sometimes have to suffer, kinda like when people were taking COVID seriously in March and April. My hunch is that on some days, such a plan would look like a mass protest action to some, and just a bunch of incivility and vandalism to others, depending on whether you’re watching cable news or not. Another hunch I have is that outrage at many different types of injustice will be involved, not just climate justice—or, as climate journalist Mary Annaise Heglar put it on a recent episode of her podcast, “There’s no special kind of justice.” Another hunch: the targets of that outrage will play martyr, and launch their own version of a protest movement. In short while 2020 has been a parade of horrors, it’s also given me a lot of hunches about what a Good Climate Plan might look like.

In the meantime, I worry that US presidents simply cannot tackle serious problems in a mature way ever for the exact reason Trump refuses to seriously deal with COVID: the president has to be a cheerleader for the stock market. Fossil fuels make cheap energy, and that’s a baseline reality that captains of industry expect to see for the foreseeable future. Last week, Warren Buffett’s company invested heavily in natural gas. Buffett is a billionaire because he tends to be right about matters like this, and he simply has to be wrong in this case. His company, like many other companies, must lose value if there’s going to be a Good Climate Plan. Whoever is president when all that precious shareholder value gets lost isn’t going to have good poll numbers over on FiveThirtyEight dot com.

So as long as “good economy”=”good president,” and as long as “Dow Jones green up arrow”=“good economy,” then maybe the ever-present goal of getting re-elected and keeping one’s party in power permanently if possible means elected officials on the national stage cannot do anything about climate change ever.

I’m not saying lose hope. Never do that! I’m saying if the world has a shot at finding the elusive Good Climate Plan, maybe activists will be going it alone.

Note for people who read all the way to the bottom: Hi. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please subscribe and spread the word. I’m hoping to post these more often, with a paid tier, and more in-depth reporting, etc. Earning more subscribers is the only way to make that possible. —Mike

Our Fascism Alarm Is Worn Out from Overuse Right When We Need It

However you classify the federal government's new offensive against protesters, it's hard to write a sentence about it that conveys how bad it is

(Photo via ICE’s Flickr account)

We Are Definitely Screwed Maybe is a newsletter about the things that scare me. You should subscribe, so you’ll always know what to be afraid of.

The situation as far as I can tell is that a vaguely-defined federal task force including officers from the US Marshals Service, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) all decked out in military-style gear, is now assigned to patrol protests, pursuant to a presidential order to protect federal monuments and government buildings from “anarchists and left-wing extremists” in direct defiance of the will of local authorities.

Members of this task force—so far relegated to Portland, but that’s expected to change soon—have started interpreting their mission so broadly that protecting federal property somehow meant, on July 12, shooting a protester named Donavan La Bella in the head with some kind of impact weapon, breaking his skull. Then late last week, these troops started hunting protesters down on sidewalks, swarming them, and hauling them off to a federal courthouse in unmarked white vans without explaining why.

From my perspective this is the sort of thing the United States government typically does in secret, and then has to cop to months or years later when some damning dossier gets leaked or declassified. But instead it’s happening now, and being reported immediately by fringe independent media outlets like CNBC:

Ideologically, or politically—or just from the standpoint of whether or not this is good or bad—I guess you’d have to call this task force a “divisive issue,” by which I mean, everyone with political power is running to their usual corners.

For instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the use of unmarked federal officers to patrol protesters back in early June, issuing an open letter about how this sort of thing “undermines accountability, ignites government distrust and suspicion, and is counter to the principle of procedural justice and legitimacy.” Then this month Pelosi escalated her condemnations by calling the troops “stormtroopers,” and told President Trump to keep them inside federal buildings. Meanwhile, Tom Cotton, the famously bloodthirsty Republican Senator from Arkansas has claimed that the protesters are "little different from the insurrectionists who seceded from the Union in 1861 in South Carolina and tried to take over Fort Sumter."

BRIEF ASIDE: Comparing US protesters to the thousands of confederate troops who surrounded and took over Fort Sumter in 1861, kicking off the Civil War, is preposterous on many levels, but the one I’d like to highlight is just how un-militant, and relatively docile US protesters are, even when people start rioting. To wit: compare any footage you’ve seen of US protesters squaring off against cops with this footage of French protesters trying to beat back French riot police by throwing glass and metal earlier this month in Paris:

When you consider how quickly there would be a body count if US protesters did this, it becomes obvious that US anti-government movements are already pre-repressed before any troops even start repressing them. Anyway, back to my main point.

By continuing to write letters and give statements when it’s clearly time to start legislating, Pelosi is, if you want my opinion, not so much bringing a knife to a gunfight as bringing a nectarine. She’s issuing stern condemnations. We have no condemnations stronger than the famous “you are acting like Hitler.” But Tom Cotton’s big floppy ears work as far as I know, so I’m pretty sure he can hear Pelosi’s Nazi comparisons, and he has made it clear that he has nonetheless recategorized protesters as traitors and/or enemy combatants, and that he wants to make them dead.

Pelosi is fighting a war of words while Cotton and the Republicans are declaring plain old war. It appears it simply does not do anything at this point to issue condemnations or make unfavorable comparisons.

And people aren’t just tweeting these words. No less an august intellect than Dr. Cornel West—perhaps the single most well-read person in America, or a very close runner-up—regularly calls Trump a “neo-fascist gangster,” in interviews on cable news. For my part, I first investigated Trump’s fascism way way back in December of 2015, the same month as the San Bernardino mass shooting. The journalist Alex Koch says he went a step further the following year and attempted to get Vice News to run a piece comparing Trump to Hitler, and failed (I worked for Vice dot com back then, not Vice News).

So what I’m saying is, if there was ever any water to be pumped from the “Trump is a fascist” well—and I would argue there probably wasn’t—it is now totally dry.

And meanwhile, Trump, for his part, says he’s about to roll out his domestic paramilitary pseudo-army in major cities across the United States. Specifically, he plans to send 150 troops to Chicago. Other cities he has name-checked include New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland. And if the justification for all these potential invasions is meant to be the protection of post offices or veterans’ cemeteries or something, Trump’s not doing a very good job of maintaining that pretense. Evidence is pretty compelling that inside of Trump’s own mind, these are general purpose crime fighters going in to use force that the local cops can’t use because they’re hamstrung by liberal governments. Here’s an unedited extract from the press conference he gave on the topic Monday (text is from the White House website):

THE PRESIDENT:  But what’s happening in New York, a place I love—I love New York. And look at what’s going on over there. The woman who was shot because she said, “Could you please not light off fire crackers?” And they turned around and shot her eight times, and she died. That’s not our civilization. That’s not about us.

And then the police are afraid to do anything.  I know New York very well.  I know the police very well—New York’s Finest. And the fact is they’re restricted from doing anything. They can’t do anything.

Q: So what are you planning on doing?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I’m going to do something—that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these—Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.

In 2017, Trump famously threatened to send troops into Chicago to stop the “horrible ‘carnage’.” Is this the culmination of that threat? Yes, this is obviously the culmination of that threat. Donald Trump is not complicated or subtle.

Maybe the problem with all the cries of “fascism!” over the years is the lack of specificity. What exactly are we saying will happen? As Noah Berlatsky pointed out last year in Pacific Standard, right-wing authoritarians in the US have expressed a desire to crush their enemies—not just radical leftists, but liberals—since long before Trump. In the heyday of Pepe Twitter, there used to be accounts dedicated to the “Pinochet helicopter rides” inside joke, which is basically that Trump would eventually start disappearing Social Justice Warriors in the style of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, by simply flying them over the ocean in helicopters and pushing them out. There was a mass shooting in 2015 at a showing of an Amy Schumer movie, brought on by the shooter’s antipathy toward liberals.

What happens when there are federal troops all over America’s major cities, dressed in combat gear, threatening to attack or disappear protesters, without any real accountability for their actions, and completely beyond the control of local authorities? (Worth noting: There is evidence that Portland cops have been cooperating with the federal troops despite condemnations from their mayor.) What happens when perceived sedition can land you in a federal lockup, potentially indefinitely, since Barack Obama signed a law in 2010 making it possible for terror suspects to be held for any length of time without trial?

To be clear, I’m not overreacting to Berlatsky, and insisting that MSNBC fans will suddenly be shipped off to concentration camps, so I’ll be specific about what does worry me:

What worries me—apart from the probable detentions, injuries, and deaths of some of the protesters who wind up in the crosshairs of these troops—is that this could work. These paramilitary troop/cops really will quell this wave of disruptive protests. If protesting means staring death in the face, I’m worried that this uprising, which fills me with optimism will go out of style for good reason. I worry about a return to the helplessness I felt in the George W. Bush days, when it felt like no one was protesting anything. I will, once again, feel stupid for getting my hopes up. And I’m worried that this hopelessness will outlast the Trump presidency.

And how exactly might that happen?

While these troops aren’t technically members of the military, it might be helpful to look at how the US military treats protesters. Look at what happened when US troops faced Iraqi protesters in 2003. Back then the US did things like put duct tape over protesters’ mouths, and cart them off in humvees for the crime of “making anti-coalition statements.” At least once, US troops opened fire on an unarmed crowd and killed 13 people at once.

Or, a little closer to home, you could look at the way the US treats protesters out our southern border. In 2018, US troops teargassed a crowd of angry migrants, including young, crying children. Trump later explained, "[Troops] were being rushed by some very tough people and they used tear gas." "Here's the bottom line,” he added, “Nobody is coming into our country unless they come in legally.”

All of which is to say that Trump is physically very far away from most US protesters. He’s not a representative of their local government, and in fact he has expressed contempt for their local politicians. He sees these actions as troop incursions into hostile areas, and he doesn’t express regret when innocent people get hurt by a actions he calls for.

If you don’t agree with my military comparison, another parallel I’ve used before is the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force that operated in Northern Ireland during the Northern Irish Conflict, a.k.a., The Troubles, from the 1960s through the 1990s. The event that more or less kicked off The Troubles, was called The Battle of Bogside in the city of Derry. If you’ve got an hour, there a lot worse ways you could spend it than by watching this 60 minute documentary about it.

What you’ll see is how a paramilitary wing of a police force, a protestant only special forces division of the Royal Ulster Constabulary called the B-Specials, whose organization had been a killing force half a decade earlier in the Irish War of Independence, helped bring about what was essentially a three-day siege in Derry. The B-Specials weren’t cops, and they weren’t military, but local catholics knew their bloody history, which means their mere presence was a threat from the British government: if you protest, these violent guys will show up and do violence to you.

I got a bit far afield there, so just bear in mind that I’m trying to sound an alarm that’s worn out and broken from being sounded so many times in the past few years. So I’ll leave you with this Twitter thread about how CPB has already been terrorizing people at the border. These are the people our president is sending into our cities. I recommend clicking and reading through the whole thing.

Note for people who read all the way to the bottom: Hi. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please subscribe and spread the word. I’m hoping to post these more often, with a paid tier, and more in-depth reporting, etc. Earning more subscribers is the only way to make that possible. —Mike

We Should Be Acting Like the Virus Is Scarier Than Ever Because It Is

The virus is easier to catch than we thought, affects the young more than we thought, and more people have it than ever. So why are we acting like it's the opposite?

We Are Definitely Screwed Maybe is a newsletter about the things that scare me. You should subscribe, so you’ll always know what to be afraid of.

When you talk to friends or family about their plans that involve leaving the house and milling around with strangers, you always hear about how they’re going to use a lot of hand sanitizer, and they’ll wear a mask, and they’ll be mostly outdoors. What you don’t hear is, “I might catch the virus, but I’m going to chance it.” It has sometimes astonished me to hear what kinds of situations my own friends and family were willing to place themselves in over the past few weeks while places like California, Arizona, and Florida have more COVID-positive people in them than ever.

I can’t really judge, because I, Mike Pearl, have taken unnecessary risks as well.

I don’t blame individuals for lacking vigilance; I blame institutions for making it so easy and normal. Obviously I mean institutions like the Georgia state government, under Governor Brian Kemp banning city ordinances that mandate mask use. But there are less dramatic examples, like California’s odd decision to keep allowing people to eat at restaurants as long as people sitting are outdoors. That in turn means waitstaff have to spend their days at work—much of which time is spent indoors—instead of staying home and collecting unemployment.

And places and events that shouldn’t have guests at all love to put our minds at ease with language about compliance with rules and regulations. Here are some unsettling google results I got by searching the phrase “In keeping with social distancing guidelines.”

Slaughterhouses owned by Smithfield Foods are, at this point, famous for hosting super-spreader events. But here’s Ken Sullivan, their president and CEO, talking on March 19 about how wonderfully compliant his company’s slaughterhouses are with the relevant laws and guidelines.

This reassuring video was posted on YouTube less than a week before a Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse COVID outbreak near me in Vernon, California. There have since been more, and more, and some have been fatal. Which is weird when you consider that Smithfield has been “taking the utmost precautions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees” according to the video.

What makes this sort of thing insidious is that it taps into associations with risky-looking-but-actually-safe activities such as riding roller coasters, or bungee jumping. When you do things like this, you encounter snooze-inducing sentences like, “All safety procedures covered in training comply with the U.S. Occupational Safety And Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).” The difference is that scary-looking amusements are almost 100 percent safe, so the safety jargon is justified—it’s good to persuade someone to go on a roller coaster, because roller coasters are both safe and fun. Meanwhile, seemingly harmless activities undertaken during a pandemic can get you infected with a deadly virus, and little statements of reassurance that such undertakings may be perceived as risky, but they are nonetheless sanctioned and tacitly endorsed by local health authorities aren’t reassuring at all; they’re an indictment of the system that sanctions and tacitly endorses them.

Because these activities are absolutely spreading the virus. And just when you were ready to assume the recent horrific spikes in cases were being caused by the super-duper negligent behavior of flip-flop wearing MAGA hat dum-dums that you, a good, smart person who reads newsletters would never be guilty of, we’re finding out that it might be easier to catch this virus than we ever thought. Places like supermarkets and elevators are just as fraught with danger as we suspected they were back in March and April, when we were still on high alert. But we are, perversely, on low alert.

Early on in the pandemic, we all internalized some dumb advice. “Don’t wear a mask,” to cite the dumbest example. I always thought that one was stupid, but I’m far from perfect; one thing I told people back in March was not to be afraid of some kind of miasma or fog of viruses in the air. Sure, measles spreads that way, I said, but in the case of COVID-19, you mostly just need to worry about things like droplets and hand-washing. I have stopped saying this, and I’m sorry to anyone I said it to.

I was basing this on articles like this one from Stat, published on March 16, that acknowledge that COVID-19 had some ability to spread as an aerosol a teeny tiny bit, but that there were “strong reasons to doubt” that COVID-19 has anything close to a measles-like aerosol capacity. “If it could easily exist as an aerosol, we would be seeing much greater levels of transmission,” epidemiologist Michael LeVasseur of Drexel University told Stat. “And we would be seeing a different pattern in who’s getting infected. With droplet spread, it’s mostly to close contacts. But if a virus easily exists as an aerosol, you could get it from people you share an elevator with.”

Droplets are scary enough, but imagine a lingering viral mist that can hang in the air for long periods of time—or worse: drift across large rooms! Why, if that were the case we would have to add a disquieting lack of control over one’s capacity to protect oneself to our existing pile of worries.

And it looks like that’s the reality now.

On July 9, the World Health Organization issued a brief, updating their stance on aerosol transmission: it’s been happening. "[S]ome outbreak reports related to indoor crowded spaces have suggested the possibility of aerosol transmission, combined with droplet transmission, for example, during choir practice, in restaurants or in fitness classes," WHO wrote.

Most likely, that “choir practice” reference stems from a very alarming contact-tracing report from March. The CDC made an infographic about it. Remember?

I remember it, but—speaking only for myself—I didn’t really internalize it. I guess I thought it was a freak incident or something.

This recent WHO brief was a response to an outcry from experts like Dr. Donald Milton, a University of Maryland aerobiologist (meaning he studies the aerosol properties of tiny organisms), who are desperate to get public health agencies to sound the alarm about aerosol spread of COVID-19. Milton told NPR, “I'm glad to see they've moved a little bit. I'm disappointed they didn't move further.”

Also this week, the CDC issued a case report on a woman in China who used a residential elevator in March while asymptomatic, and set off a chain of events in which 71 people contracted the virus. According to that report, “surfaces” in the elevator are to blame—buttons, I guess? What surfaces do you touch when you’re in an elevator? This seems dubious in my opinion, but who knows? That report may or may not factor in the findings of a separate brand new report from the CDC saying that infectious aerosol COVID clouds can keep their potency for an amazing 16 hours.

Demonstrating conclusively that the virus spreads via aerosol has been tough. “Proof” is a pretty high bar. Experiments have been conducted using ferrets, (because scientists can’t easily conduct experiments in which human beings are directly exposed to a deadly virus) and they’ve demonstrated that ferrets can contract COVID-19 in this way, even if direct contact is a more reliable way to spread the virus.

(Below are some graphics from a paper on one of the ferret experiments, which I am posting here in order to critique them, which officially makes this fair use. The cartoon ferrets aren’t nearly as cute as the real ones, and the light gray bars on the bar graph below are hard to see.)

(Mathilde Richard et al., image via Nature)

Just about everyone in the science world is still being cagey about the extent of aerosol spread, but they seem increasingly worried about it. For instance, Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol chemist at the Univeristy of Colorado-Boulder tweeted on July 11, “I am ready to say publicly that my *guess* is that the majority (>50%) of the spread is through aerosols.” Now I have to say, publicly guessing is kind of a weird thing to do when you’re a scientist. Scientists are supposed to privately guess, and then devise an experiment that may or may not disprove that guess, and then report the experiment’s findings. So by publicly guessing, it’s important to note that he isn’t stating anything conclusively. What it suggests to me is that “COVID is mostly being transmitted as an aerosol” is a hypothesis Jiminez urgently wants other scientists to disprove.

So getting back to my original point, I can still remember a time—May, roughly—when I mistakenly felt like I had a pretty firm grip on my own ability to prevent myself from getting infected without the need to shelter at home: don’t hang around nursing homes; be outdoors if I’m around people; wear a mask; wash my hands. And I was totally off base. The part about being outdoors was probably on the right track, but we’re still ignorant about how this virus spreads. It was just last week when New York City bus drivers were directed to keep their windows open. Looking back, it seems insane that bus windows were ever closed, but honestly it wouldn’t have occurred to me to make a fuss about closed windows before I learned about the prevalence of aerosol spread.

Worse, while the very elderly are still the group likeliest to die from the disease, the latest hump in our nation’s dromedary COVID surge is largely being driven by infections in young adults. Still worse than that, a University of California San Francisco study published this week culled from 8,400 people between 18 and 25 found that about a third were “medically vulnerable” to the serious form of COVID-19, particularly if they smoke.

At the start of the crisis, California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference that more than half of the people in my state could get the virus if we didn’t take steps to mitigate the spread. A few weeks later, a Harvard study projected a scenario in which social distancing lasts until 2022. Newsom later explained that he was just trying to scare some caution into Californians, and the day after he said half of us might get infected, he issued the first stay at home order in the country. Similarly, when CNN wrote about the Harvard study warning about social distancing until 2022, they added, “That is, unless a vaccine or better therapeutics becomes available, or we increase our critical care capacity. In other words, 2022 is one scenario of many.”

To say that the US has fucked up since those early warnings were issued is putting it mildly. Ed Yong, a science writer usually published in The Atlantic—in other words someone not usually prone to the sort of blackpilled, VICE-inflected nihilism you might expect from, say, me—had this to say when he was asked on CNN about the eventual rollout of a vaccine:

Can a country that is doing so badly as we are right now at controlling Covid-19 roll out a vaccine in a way that is equitable? Efficient? [I'm] not sure I have faith in that process. Let me give you three predictions for a vaccine: Firstly, that a lot of people are going to resist the very idea of getting it, because they've been told for months, years now, not to trust experts. That the people who have been most marginalized during this pandemic, who've been disproportionally hit—black, brown, poor, indigenous, disabled, elderly people will be last in line to get a medical countermeasure that's developed, and that the deployment of such a vaccine is just going to be a logistical nightmare. A country that, seven months into a pandemic still cannot ensure that its healthcare workers have enough gowns and gloves and protective equipment is not going to be able to distribute a vaccine in an efficient way. It simply isn't.

It really seems like the worst case scenarios are the reality. We are at the peak of this outbreak, and the next peak will be tomorrow, and yet I know and love people who are —despite some recent rhetoric about a need to close back up and get back into lockdown mode—nonetheless gathering in people’s homes, climbing into boats with one another, and going to restaurants in large groups. Hell, even I will let myself be pressured into gatherings I’m not comfortable with because I’m not immune to social pressure. Again: I don’t blame individuals; I blame institutions. I will whitewash my own description of my risky behaviors with a nice coat of safety jargon, but the fact remains that quarantining means staying in your house.

And I haven’t even mentioned the nationwide plan to send tens of millions of kids back to school without substantially changing anything about how our schools function.

Something about all this has to change or the US could see over a million deaths—or multiple million. People who want to avoid infection might be stuck inside until well after 2022. In fact, the whole idea that this could be over by 2022 might, when we look back on this, be nothing but a cruel joke.

Note for people who read all the way to the bottom: Hi. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please subscribe and spread the word. I’m hoping to post these more often, with a paid tier, and more in-depth reporting, etc. Earning more subscribers is the only way to make that possible. —Mike

I Worry That I Sound Like I Wish Society Would Collapse

Scientists just confirmed the first extinction of a marine fish *ever* and it feels like we're programmed not to care—let alone do anything about

We Are Definitely Screwed Maybe is a newsletter about the things that scare me. You should subscribe, so you’ll always know what to be afraid of.

Sometimes I worry that I sound like one of those people who welcomes civilization’s unraveling. I don’t. I happen to think civilization is good, and we should have one. It’s just frustrating how much urgently needs to change, and how that sense of urgency isn’t reflected by anyone in power. And OK, yes, that sometimes makes me wish society would unravel just enough to get things back on track, and then re-ravel. Just a light apocalypse, please. Hold the death.

For instance: For the first time in recorded history, a marine fish has officially gone extinct.

I guarantee you’ve never seen a smooth handfish, even if you’ve been hanging around their habitat off the coast of Tasmania. No one’s seen one in 200 years. And now no one will because they’re all dead. The last smooth handfish seen by any person is a preserved sample that looks like this:

(image by Australian National Fish Collection)

There are a plenty of extant handfish species that live off the coast of Australia, and what makes them unique is that their fins are kinda like hands, and instead of swimming, they crawl like little babies along the ocean floor. And then ships like this scallop trawler operating in the Tasmanian sea come along and drag big plows over acres and acres of their habitat all at once and kill them, or if not kill them outright, turn their habitats into undersea deserts.

What you saw in that video was an updated, and ostensibly more evolved, and less destructive form of trawling, than the method that probably killed off the smooth handfish years ago. New practices were adopted after Australia’s fisheries collapsed in 1967, according to a post about the smooth handfish on Phys.org.

But bottom trawling is still pretty awful, and we don’t like to think about how it’s our main method for acquiring tasty treats like tender little bits of hotate sushi. It’s also how we get shrimp. We don’t want to give these up, even though we obviously have to. More on this in a minute.

Historically, according to Jessica Meeuwig, director of the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Marine Futures, you don’t just label a marine fish “extinct,” because there’s this perception that you might be wrong. “Some claim that the ocean is too vast for marine wildlife to go extinct,” Meeuwig told Mongabay. But, she said, “ocean industrialization from fishing, mining, oil and gas exploration, shipping and infrastructure development is catching up with the scale of industrialization on land and with it the risk of extinction for marine wildlife.”

So that’s what makes this a big deal: the decision to brand a species extinct isn’t something the folks at The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) take lightly. If you look at the 2019-2020 IUCN Red List status change data table, you’ll see that the vast majority (90 percent or more) of status changes are due to new data, not because of some genuine change in a species’ vulnerability or raw numbers. Everything with a “N” in the second column from the right is one of these “non-genuine” status changes.

So the majority of what the IUCN does is bean-counting. This is not an organization that likes to raise a false alarm. And ever since the list was created in 1964, no ocean fish has ever had its status changed to “extinct.” But now one has. As it happens, this is one that died off ages ago, but now that the IUCN has signaled its willingness to go out on a limb and admit that an ocean fish is 100 percent wiped out, it’s a safe bet it won’t be the last.

In my book, The Day It Finally Happens, I talked about the coming manmade marine fish mass extinction:

Thanks to our species' multi-pronged and comprehensive approach, humanity's present day "Kill All the Marine Life" project is going extremely well. Here's a quick cheat sheet listing our main strategies:

  • We dump several million metric tons of plastic garbage into the oceans every year.

  • Bottom trawling, or dragging fishing equipment across the seafloor, is turning "large portions of the deep continental slope into faunal deserts and highly degraded seascapes" according to a 2014 report on the long-term effects of this widespread practice

  • The planet is heating up really fast, and the resulting extinctions are happening in real time. (Although, for the record, at this rate it will take a few more centuries for this effect to reach the lifeforms at the deepest depths of the oceans.)

  • Ocean acidification—the other major side effect of CO2 emissions besides global warming—is causing countless die-offs, most famously in corals, the backbone of coral reefs, the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth.

  • Fertilizer and pesticides poison the ocean, and when combined with the above factors, they help create "dead zones," nearly oxygen-free patches of ocean where almost nothing can live. According to a 2018 paper published in Science magazine, dead zones make up four times as much of the oceans as they did in 1950.

  • We eat the sea's living creatures—which is the number-one cause of their declining numbers. There are rates at which we can supposedly fish sustainably—meaning in such a way that we don't run out—but the fishing industry operates in volumes that meet, or surpass the peak equilibrium rate. (Right now, we're hauling up 90 percent of fish stocks globally, according to the UN.) In other words, we're killing as many fish as we possibly can as a byproduct of our industries, and then on top of that, we're also eating as many as we can.

So it won’t be long before the extinction of a marine fish is so common, it doesn’t even make headlines. Oh wait, this was the first one ever, and it already didn’t make headlines.

Before I say this next part, know that I am not a part of the very important field known as “science communication”—PR for scientists, basically. In some ways, science communication is a method of fundraising, but in other ways, it’s a crucial part of science that’s mostly been botched since the beginning. Science is simply the process of gathering falsifiable evidence about phenomena, falsifying some of it, and then finding better evidence. I’m not sure who to blame, and, but the inability of the science community to get its messages across successfully is how we’ve ended up with the Scopes Monkey Trial or Breitbart climate pest James Delingpole, or the entire state of Arizona right now.

I said all that to say this: Wow, the science communicators could have probably earned themselves little more press about the extinction of the smooth handfish. It hasn’t made any waves, even though it’s the first official extinction of a marine fish ever. And I did my best to tweet about it, maybe that’ll help, Lol.

It is almost as if people don’t know what to do with a piece of news if you can’t either a) simply do nothing, or b) do something hollow and consumerist. The stuff on the news rarely translates into any sort of actual personal sacrifice.

It makes me think of an old Salon article by Lindsay Abrams about trying to find a way to eat fish sustainably, only to find out that ecologist Carl Safina, who pretty much invented the concept of sustainable fish, ended up jaded by the shallow response his ideas received from consumers. He wanted consumers to have a nice long think about the animals they were so cavalierly stuffing into their faces, and consumers wanted, basically, a guilt-reduction app.

For people like me, who live in cities and don’t have the time or inclination to cast out a line, indifference can come to feel inevitable. It’s a problem that comes up with most “green” issues, involving a big picture that’s hard to see from one’s own small-impact, individual perspective. Another thing Safina said, which I didn’t at first understand, is that he was disappointed by how popular his guide, and its many imitators, was:

It would be even better, in my opinion, if people wanted to appreciate fish for everything that they actually are. Mainly they’re animals, and they have lives and they live in the ocean and they interact in incredibly interesting ecological ways. And most people have really no interest in any of that. They just want to know, ‘If it hits my plate, should I eat it?’ … They miss everything else that there is about fish, and the whole living world really, that makes them so interesting and beautiful and wondrous.

In other words, the guides are like a CliffsNotes version of an issue that’s much bigger than anything we do or do not decide to put in our mouths. Perhaps if we all saw the ocean and its inhabitants the way Safina does, trying to do better by them would seem less of a burden.

Zooming out from fish to the bigger picture of global ecology, it’s the same story. What passes for a serious, high-minded approach to tackling climate change in the European Union is the new Green New Deal law, passed in March, which will make Europe “the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050,” which, to save you from having to do any match, is thirty years from now, which is way too late (And Democrats in the US are pushing for the same timeline). Extinction Rebellion’s plan is net zero emissions within five years.

Back in March, Greta Thunberg said of the climate change law, "This climate law is surrender. Nature doesn't bargain, and you cannot make deals with physics." I thought about that Thunberg quote when I saw this event in Barcelona from last month where a string group performed classical music for an audience of plants.

Eugenio Ampudia, a conceptual artists (of course) set up the performance. His explanation was that he was inspired by all the nature he saw during the quarantine, “I watched what was going on with nature during all this time. I heard many more birds singing. And the plants in my garden and outside growing faster. And, without a doubt, I thought that maybe I could now relate in a much more intimate way with people and nature,” he told The Guardian.

Filling a concert hall with plants and playing music to them has this eerie air of penitence about it. I haven’t been able to get this image out of my head for weeks now. It feels like some kind of coda to the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Happening, where (spoiler) after the trees murder most of humanity in revenge for our environmental crimes, we try to calm them down by playing them some Puccini.

That impotent, guilty feeling may or may not have something to do with a new aesthetic trend spotted by eagle-eyed UK-based culture reporter Al Horner. His piece for the BBC website is called, Why the apocalypse is being reimagined as a beautiful event. He finds a bunch of examples of this concept—particularly in the Last of Us game series—and traces the trend back to Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us, which by the way, was edited by the same guy who edited my book, Rick Horgan.

I got in touch with Al, and showed him the Barcelona plant thing, and generally picked his brain. Here’s an edited version of our conversation (For one thing, I Americanized his spelling, and there’s nothing he can do about it now).

Mike: What do you think of this?

Al: The Barcelona potted plant thing is interesting! And oddly moving? That just me? I don't know if this is the nature apocalypse aesthetic spilling into real life but what I do know is that, I don't think had the virus struck five years ago, the Barcelona opera would have done this. There's a lot more awareness about environmental causes, so the issue is percolating constantly in everyone's heads a lot more now. Hopefully that awareness and connection to nature will be sharpened post-lockdown: nothing heightens your appreciation for the outdoors and birdsong and fresh air and sunlight like having it rationed to you, one hour a day, which was the case at one point here in the UK. We were allowed one 60-minute walk a day in late March. Hopefully all of this offers an opportunity for people to hit a bit of a reset button when it comes to their habits and mindsets regarding carbon, and this room full of potted plants enjoying a string quartet is the only real-life manifestation of the nature apocalypse aesthetic we have to see in the real world, hah.

I'm sorta curious about the genesis of that article. Both the idea that led to it, and how you pitched it? (Assuming it was a pitch)

The idea hit me a couple of months ago, after re-watching Alex Garland's Annihilation over Christmas. Like a lot of other movies I'd watched over the festive break, it seemed to explore the idea of apocalypse through the lens of nature, something I'd totally missed the first time I watched it. To be totally honest, I wasn't sure if it was in my head: I was deep into research on some extremely anxiety-spiking projects around climate at the time, and was conscious I might be projecting my own climate anxiety onto these movies. It was just on my brain 24/7. But as weeks went on, I kept seeing more and more apocalypse fiction across all kinds of mediums that years ago would be have full of smoldering greys and dark, urban ruins. Instead, they were full of really jarring beauty and vibrant nature. I wasn't sure if it was just an interesting visual contradiction for filmmakers to use; plain science (nature, by all accounts, really reclaim urban spaces if we all disappeared overnight); or if storytellers were consciously or unconsciously expressing something deeper. I followed the thread backwards trying to find out where the trend began, and ended up at The Last of Us. (I'm sure there are other films and pop culture predating TLOU that have experimented with similar aesthetics, but all the conversations I had with filmmakers etc pointed towards the game popularizing it.) Once I remembered there was a sequel coming out, I decided I'd pitch it to the BBC, who were awesome to work with. The original Last of Us came out in 2013 and was rooted in science. But I feel the pop culture that has adopted its aesthetic has done so to process worry or in some cases warn about environmental catastrophe.

You don't go into the ethics of picking an aesthetic for apocalypse fiction (I'm thinking of Malthusianism, and the whole "nature is healing" concept). Do you have thoughts on that? Did anyone talk about it while you were interviewing them?

It's really funny you should mention Malthusianism—one of the people interviewed in the piece, Alan Weisman, wrote The World Without Us, which was one of the inspirations behind The Last Of Us. His follow-up book, however, Countdown (which I don't mention in the piece) grappled with the problem of population, and was conflated with Malthusianism a few times along the way. It's tricky: any question of apocalypse in 2020 is tangled up in questions of climate change, and any question of climate change is tangled up unfortunately in the fact that our population has doubled in size worldwide since 1970.

A lot of the people I spoke to both for the piece itself and for background on the article spoke about an ethical duty among storytellers to bring environmental themes and aesthetics into their work. I'm inclined to agree, I think. It can be reductive, and a bit cheap in some cases, but I think there's a belief among a lot of them that pop culture has a trickle down effect. A good, totally anecdotal example of this for me is Jurassic Park: I realized on a recent rewatch that, although I had no idea until now, a lot of my attitudes towards nature as this unfuckwithable force that man can't tame—it's hubris to think you can—probably stem from me watching and rewatching that movie about Jeff Goldblum being chased by velociraptors. (Love the chapter in your book about the real-life potential of a Jurassic Park btw!) So I can understand their argument that ethically it's a responsible thing to be threading into apocalypse fiction right now. There'll no doubt be examples of it that are a bit crass or feel a bit like all those "nature is healing" memes, but on the whole it stuck me as pretty much admirable. (I didn't build it into the piece simply cos I ran out of word count, as usual, haha)

There's something almost naive about what we call the "dystopian" aesthetic. It feels like maybe it's had its day. You can google image search "dystopian aesthetic" and the results will make you go "Sure. That..." So there's something about this shift that feels potentially like progress. That's not a question, but maybe you can help me square that circle...

“Dystopian aesthetic” is funny—have you ever seen a Brad Bird film called Tomorrowland? It's a bad film from (imo) a great director, based on the Disneyland area. Despite its objective badness, there's one idea in it that's really stuck with me. The film posits that, as a culture, we fetishize dystopia and as a result end up in a loop: when the only future pop culture has trained you to imagine is one of destruction, of course that's what we're going to head towards. What I think I like about the nature-ization of apocalypse stories is that they invert this. The idea of nature adapting and existing after our demise (which seems to be rooted in scientific truth) is humbling and communicates an awe towards our environment that I think is helpful. It's also just different, refreshing. I think there was definitely some fatigue when it came to traditional dystopian imagery, and at the very least, nature-apocalypse stories offer something new.

I appreciate you giving me you thoughts, and I think you're dead on except about one thing: I actually like Tomorrowland. For one thing I think it's hilarious when George Clooney is yelling at that tiny little robot girl as if she's his ex-wife or something. And then the other thing is the themes you were talking about in your answer. Totally agree with all that.

Hahahahahhaaha YES! Love that scene, I'm absolutely due a rewatch.

Note for people who read all the way to the bottom: Hi. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please subscribe and spread the word. I’m hoping to post these more often, with a paid tier, and more in-depth reporting, etc. Earning more subscribers is the only way to make that possible. —Mike

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